The Student’s Guide to Living Abroad: 20 Essential Tips

How to make the best of your home away from home.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Student Living Abroad

Moving abroad can be quite the pick ’n’ mix of experiences: some will be good, some challenging, but no matter the ratio you get of fun to dreary, one thing is certain. Your time abroad will be a period in your life that you’ll always remember.

As someone who’s moved away to attend university in a different country, I can empathize with anyone who might be getting cold feet as the time to pack your bags approaches — and I certainly commend your attitude if you’re excited and thinking positively, instead!

To help you prepare as thoroughly as possible and make the most of your time abroad, I’ve put together a list of tips and advice for the days leading up to your move as well as after you’ve settled in. Let’s get into it!

Before you move

1. Use a checklist

You might not be a checklist kind of person, but you’ll have to make an allowance for this. Having a list to tick things off of can be the best way to ensure that you don’t have a big oops! moment the minute you step off the airplane or arrive at your dorm.

So, sit down with a friend or family member, and write every little thing you’ll need to do before you head off, including the stuff you’ve got to pack.

2. Start packing early

If you’re the kind of person to procrastinate, you might need an accountability buddy for this one — someone who will give you a deadline for packing up, and pester you until you do it.

At the very least, start with the essentials: climate-appropriate clothing, any medications you’re taking, electronic devices (and their chargers), and official documents. Forgetting your cat-ear gaming headset (though heartbreaking) won’t prevent you from entering another country and getting to your dorm. So, when packing, make sure you start from the basics.

3. Find accommodation

In some parts of the world, like the Netherlands, finding a place to stay as a student can be incredibly difficult due to housing shortages. That’s why it’s good to start looking for accommodation several months in advance, particularly if your university hasn’t got its own dorms.

Although this might sound complicated, it doesn’t have to be — all thanks to the internet! There are plenty of social media groups that can help you get in touch with property owners looking for renters or students looking for roommates. There are even dedicated websites for this, such as the Amber Student student accommodation app that has so far helped millions of students find a place to call home.

4. Get a medical certificate

Depending on where you’re going, your university might require a health certificate and an immunization record filed by your physician at home. Your university admissions team will have all the answers on what’s needed and what’s not, so be sure to contact them early and find out what applies to students flying in from your part of the world.

5. Apply for your visa

Getting your visa application in early is imperative. And, before you can apply, you’ll have to determine what type of visa you’ll need based on your nationality and the length of your stay.

If you’re not sure, get in touch with your university or the embassy of the country in which you plan to study. Typically, you’ll be required to hold a valid passport and provide proof of acceptance into university, as well as proof of being financially able to cover your student expenses.

6. Apply for medical insurance

Many higher education institutions require students from overseas to purchase medical insurance coverage for the duration of their enrollment. As this can sometimes vary, it’s a good idea to find out what’s required of you and compare different plans ahead of time so that everything is sorted out prior to your arrival.

7. Apply for financial aid

According to Top Universities, Norway, Taiwan, Germany, France and Mexico offer some of the most affordable university tuition fees around the world. However, even in places where tuition fees are low, living and traveling expenses for internationals can quickly pile high.

If you’ll require financial assistance to complete your degree abroad, it’s important that you do some calculations and find the right option for you. As with your visa and housing, the more time you give yourself, the less stressful the process will be.

8. Book your flights early

Booking your flights is the last thing on your list that you’d forget to do. But there’s more to it than just getting a seat: you need to book special baggage if you need it (if you’re taking an instrument or sports equipment with you, for example), as well as give yourself a big enough layover if you’re catching more than one flight.

Also, you’ll want to remember to check customs regulations in the foreign country that’s soon to become your home away from home. Some items, including medications, might require special permits or declaration.

9. Meet your classmates online

There are Facebook groups for just about anyone these days: from octopus fans to lovers of all things paranormal. So, there’s bound to be one for your class, too. When you get the chance, find it, join it and see what everyone’s saying.

Though there are bound to be posts that make you roll your eyes, you might also come across profiles of people that seem to be on a similar wavelength as you. Connecting with even one or two people before moving away from home can make all the difference once you arrive in a totally unfamiliar place.

10. Keep your documents safe

Visas, acceptance letters, bank account details, residency contracts, insurance documents, vaccination reports… There’s a myriad of documents, virtual and printed, that you’ll need to keep a hold of.

So, before you bid your goodbyes and get on that plane or train, create designated folders on your desktop and your email inbox for university-related files, and keep a folder for printed documents.

Once you get there

11. Register with a doctor

Trust me: the last thing you’ll want to deal with when you have an assignment due is not knowing who to call when that fresher’s flu kicks in. Because it most likely will. Your first few weeks at university are going to entail being around many new people from all parts of the Earth, something your immune system probably won’t be used to.

12. Take a walk around your campus

Before classes begin, spend a morning or afternoon walking around your campus. Don’t do what I did, which is the following: I located the building I was supposed to go to on my first day of university, but didn’t bother entering it. And those things can be literal mazes on the inside.

Long story short, I arrived late on my first day and struggled to find an empty seat while getting stared at by a large group of strangers. To put it mildly, that’s not an ideal situation when you’re an anxious 20-something-year-old.

13. Join a society

Joining a college society can be a great way to make friends, as you’ll enter the group knowing you already have at least one thing in common with everyone else there.

Even if the idea of socializing with strangers makes you uncomfortable, it’s important to give it a go. Living abroad on your own can get challenging, and the more you step outside of your comfort zone, the more you build your resilience. Plus, it never hurts to have friends, does it?

14. Leave your room often

Even if you get along swimmingly with your roommates, it’s important to get out of the house or dorm often. The fresh air will do you good, and so will the sunlight — even if it comes filtering through a layer of cloud.

So, whenever you can, go on walks, attend events, or even get a day ticket and visit nearby towns on the bus. Incorporating some kind of movement into your daily routine, even if it’s a 20-minute brisk walk in the morning, can be beneficial to your mental and physical health.

15. Learn how to cook

I gained 15lbs in my first year at university, and it was all thanks to frozen pizzas and cheap cider. And while there’s nothing wrong with the weight gain itself, the lack of nutrient-rich foods negatively impacted my mood, energy levels and performance at school.

Not to mention, as delicious as that Indian takeaway place might be around the corner, buying ready-made meals often can also get very expensive. Striking a balance, therefore, will help in multiple ways.

16. Establish (some sort of) routine

Until you settle into your new environment and reality, your sleeping and eating schedules can get totally jumbled up. That can then interfere with studying, exercising and socializing. So, as much as you can, try to establish a routine that works for you.

For example, I used to clean my room and do laundry on Sundays. Something about entering the new week with a tidy desk, a crumb-free floor and an empty trashcan did wonders for my silly, overwhelmed brain.

17. Take breaks from studying

This should be obvious, and yet it sometimes isn’t. Though it’s important to try your best to make yourself proud, overdoing it with studying can backfire. The sooner you start viewing breaks as an integral part of writing papers and revising for exams, the better off you’ll be in terms of your cognitive performance.

Indeed, research by the National Institutes of Health has concluded the following: “The resting brain repeatedly replays compressed memories of what was just practiced.” Meaning, when we rest, the brain “solidifies” whatever new skill it is that we’re trying to learn.

18. Stay in touch with friends and family

If you’re just finishing high school or have never left your hometown before, then you’ll likely have friends whom you’ve known for a long while. Naturally, parting with them as well as your family can be difficult, and the homesickness can sometimes hit you when you’re least expecting it.

That’s why it’s a good idea to arrange phone or video calls with them often, to fill each other in on what’s been happening. You can even play games online together, like UNO and Scrabble, or any online multiplayer video game, if you’re into that.

19. Try to see the positives

According to a survey by Pew Research Center, nearly one in three adults have never left the country to travel abroad. The fact that you get to not only travel but also live in a new place is, therefore, a pretty big deal. In fact, many would call it a privilege!

Having said that, and although practicing gratitude is important, don’t go to the other extreme and push away all negative thoughts. Feeling your feelings is the only way to process them and come out the other side feeling better and a little more confident when the going gets tough.

20. Have realistic expectations

When I left my hometown, I expected moving abroad to be this extraordinary, life-altering experience — and it was, but not always in a pleasant way. What we see in movies and what we hear from older generations (who often view the past through rose-colored lenses) isn’t the absolute truth.

As with most things in life, you’ll be able to find both pros and cons in living abroad: and that in no way diminishes the value of such a unique experience.

Key takeaways

And there we have it: a 20-step student’s guide to living abroad. As you’ve probably got quite a lot to consider and process, let’s condense the key points we covered into bite-size bits of information:

  • The earlier you start planning things, from packing to applying for a visa to looking for accommodation, the better.
  • Putting together a checklist can ensure that you don’t omit something crucial, such as renewing your passport in time or getting a paper prescription for medication.
  • Finding healthy ways to cope with the stress and homesickness is important. This can look like practicing gratitude, going on daily walks, socializing and calling home often.
  • University students are plagued by loneliness: one in four reports feeling lonely all or most of the time. So, try to connect with those around you; it will be good for you and them!

If you could add more things to this student guide, what would they be? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!